My last post was my first attempt at using satire here on this blog. I received quite a bit of positive feedback, but also a few expressions of concern. Is satire a suitable genre for a Christian writer? In particular, is it fitting to rewrite the words of Scripture as I did?
Satire can be defined as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues” (The New Oxford American Dictionary). My use of satire was not intended to involve “ridicule,” and it was aimed at unbiblical thinking more than at “stupidity or vices.” But the rest of the definition generally matches my post. I definitely was intending to employ “humor,” “irony,” and “exaggeration,” and I did mean for my words to “expose” and “criticize” (in the sense of indicating weaknesses, not in the sense of sentencing someone to punishment).
While I have written satire before (in a university context), I do not have a well-developed theology of satire. I think this is one of those gray areas where it is unlikely all Christians will agree. Our varied backgrounds shape the way we read, so we each tend to hear the same words differently. Where one person feels a brotherly elbow to the ribs—good-natured, timely, and instructive—another may feel he is stumbling over an ill-placed rock in the path.
This calls for graciousness and discernment—on the part of both writer and reader. As I write, I want to honor you by writing in a way that will tend to produce good fruit. Your feedback will help me do so. Thank you!
Meanwhile, a few thoughts about satire in the Bible.
Is satire found in the Bible? Yes, it most definitely is.
Many students of biblical literature see much satire in the prophets, for example. Jonah is a humorous example of exactly how not to be a prophet. Children to this day naturally smile over his story. Who wouldn’t— with his naive attempt to run from God, his surprising fish ride that ends in a spit, and his all-out-of-measure suicidal whining over a withered plant?
Amos is another book where satire is often noted. For example, there is certainly humor, irony, exaggeration, and even ridicule behind these biting words:
“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are on the mountain of Samaria…
“Come to Bethel, and transgress;
to Gilgal, and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three days…
“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord. (Amos 4:1, 4, 6)
Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him. (Amos 5:18-19)
Or consider Elijah’s words on Mount Carmel, descending even to bathroom humor as he ridicules Baal:
And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27)
Biblical satire is not limited to the Old Testament. Paul used satire when addressing his opponents at Corinth:
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! (1 Cor. 4:8; cf. 2 Cor. 12:11-13)
Why did he use such language?
I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. (1 Cor. 4:14)
Jesus, too, used satire. (He also used a lot of more general hyperbole—exaggeration—a fact that provides interpretive challenges for us who believe, with Dean Taylor, that Jesus “meant every word he said.”) Ask yourself: Can you really imagine no one snickering at least a little when Jesus spoke the following words?
You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!… You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. (Matt. 23:24, 27)
And the mixture of humor, exaggeration, and biting attack in the following words is brilliant!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. (Matt. 23:29-32)
There is no way those words would pass the inspection of Logic 101. But they function absolutely perfectly on the level of emotionally-moving rhetoric. And they are certainly satire.
More biblical examples could easily be given. The topic deserves at least a full essay!
I get the sense that the ancient Jewish world (much like the modern Jewish world) was much more used to this kind of powerful and confrontational use of language than what we are, especially in our Anabaptist subculture. I do notice that the strongest use of satire in the Bible seems to be reserved for those who are furthest from God. Rebukes of fellow believers tend to be more gentle—yet even there Paul used some satire, as noted above.
What about rewriting God’s words? Do we find any positive examples of that sort of thing in Scripture? Yes, I think we do.
In Kings we read about wicked King Ahab convincing his friend King Jehoshaphat to join him in a military campaign. Jehoshaphat wants to have some prophets inquire of the Lord before they head into battle. So Ahab gathers 400 false prophets together. They all predict success. Jehoshaphat, however, isn’t satisfied. So Ahab begrudgingly invites Micaiah, a true prophet of God, to add his word. What sort of word does Micaiah bring? Let’s listen:
And the messenger who went to summon Micaiah said to him, “Behold, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king. Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.” But Micaiah said, “As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak.” (1 Kings 23:13-14)
That sounds clear enough, doesn’t it? But continue listening:
And when he had come to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?” And he answered him, “Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” But the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” And he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.’” (1 Kings 22:15-17)
Notice Micaiah’s prophetic strategy: The first time he spoke, he intentionally misrepresented the words of God. Only when pressed to clarify did he present God’s words accurately.
Why did Micaiah do this? What did Micaiah achieve through satire that he would not have achieved if he had spoken God’s word accurately and directly the first time?
I can think of at least two good answers. First, Micaiah’s satirical approach forced Ahab to work harder to learn the truth. This is consistent with the pattern of God’s dealings with humanity; he often withholds truth from those who seek it only casually. Sometimes he does this to leave rebellious souls in the dark. Other times he withholds light in order to make sincere seekers seek it more earnestly. Effective communication—including some forms of satire—can make the listener or reader work harder. If they work harder, they can learn more. The same is true of biblical proverbs and parables; just enough light is given to make the earnest seeker scratch his head, asking questions that uncover much more truth—and lodge it deeper in his heart–than if facts were handed to him without any effort on his part.
Second, Micaiah’s satirical approach effectively exposed Ahab’s heart. His words uncovered Ahab’s ruse; Ahab had no real desire to hear God’s word, despite his pious religious pretending. Sarcasm pricked his pretensions in a powerful way. It triggered what was virtually a confession: “I know that God doesn’t have good things to say about me.”
So, as surprising as it may sound, we have positive precedent for intentionally misrepresenting God’s word! Notice, of course, that Micaiah didn’t leave anyone deceived longterm about God’s word. His misrepresentation was limited and brief. And it was followed up by a true proclamation of God’s word. (Similarly, my RAT “translation” was accompanied by links directing the reader to an accurate translation of Scripture. I hope at least a few readers took time to ponder the differences.)
Believe it or not, there are also plenty of biblical examples of God himself deliberately deceiving people! In this same passage, for example, we read the following:
And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.” (1 Kings 22:19-23)
There are more passages about God deceiving humans—telling Samuel how to save his life by practicing deception (1 Sam. 16:2), deceiving prophets who are consulted by those with idolatrous hearts (Ez. 14:9), and sending a strong delusion on those who take pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess. 2:11). In addition, there are various passages where God’s people practice deceit and are rewarded. Consider the Hebrew midwives (Ex. 1:15-21), Rahab (Josh. 2:5; James 2:25), Jael (Judg. 4:18-22; 5:24), and Elijah (2 Kings 6:19). Jesus deliberately left some people in the dark about his teachings (Mark 4:10-12), and even apparently intentionally mislead others about his intentions (John 7:8-10; while many commentators suggest ways to understand that Jesus was not directly lying here, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he deliberately led his brothers to believe something that was not true).
These passages are beyond the scope of this post, but they are nevertheless worthy of our consideration.
So, what tentative conclusions can we draw about Christians and satire from the biblical texts I have shared? Here are a number:
- Satire is an important, though secondary, form of Christian proclamation.
- Satire can be an effective way to get attention, so that people actually hear (and remember) your words.
- Satire can stir sincere seekers to a more diligent search for truth.
- Satire can effectively expose people’s hearts—their false motives and bad thinking.
- The strongest satire (sarcasm) is usually best reserved for false teachers who need to be publicly exposed in order to protect others from their influence.
- Gentle satire is sometimes an expression of familial love and care.
- The humor in satire should invite us to laugh at human folly or at surprising imagery, but not at God himself.
- Satirical misrepresentation of God’s words must be purposeful, limited, and temporary—never letting people walk away with confusion about what God has said.
In addition to these tentative conclusions, we should also remember the repeated call of Scripture to be gentle and loving in our speech. Our words should never be hurtful merely for our own pleasure. Yes, “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6). On the other hand: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18).
Don’t worry—I don’t plan to start an Anabaptist version of the Onion, despite several readers encouraging me to do so! As a Christian communicator, I want my words to be nutritious. Flavorful, yes, but not overwhelmed with the spice of satire.
What do you think? Have you pondered the place of satire in the Bible? When is it right for Christians to imitate the satirical words of Elijah, Amos, Paul, and Jesus? Is satire more fitting for some cultures than for others? And what do we make of Micaiah’s satirical misrepresentation of God’s word? Can you help me think of any similar biblical examples? Share your insights in the comments below. And thank you!